Is it Theodore Parker, or not?

I was thinking about using the well-known Theodore Parker quote in this Sunday’s service, the one that reads:

“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.”

It didn’t sound quite right somehow, so I thought I’d check up on it. Did Parker write it, or is it simply something attributed to him?

First I searched his collected works for the phrase “Be ours a religion like sunshine.” Nothing. Then I searched his collected works for “sunshine.” Finally I found what I was looking for in Rufus Leighton, editor, The World of Matter and the World of Man: Selected from Notes of Unpublished Sermons (Boston: Charles W. Slack, 1865). It’s the last sentence of a one-paragraph sermon note which bears the title “Man’s Spirit Reported in His Physical Condition”:

“A man’s soul presently reports itself in his body, and telegraphs in his flesh the result of his doings in spirit; so that the physical condition of the people is always a sign of their spiritual condition, whereof it is also a result. I mean the bodily health of men, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in, the average age they reach,— all these depend on the spiritual condition of the people, and are a witness to the state of their mind and conscience, their heart and their soul. True religion, like sunshine, goes everywhere; or a false form of religion, like night and darkness, penetrates into every crack and crevice of a man’s life.” (pp. 76-77)

Hmm. This actually has a quite different meaning than the well-known Parker quote. It’s about “true religion,” not about “our religion.” And it’s about how religion affects the physical body. And it’s really just notes towards a proposed sermon, so it’s not really an idea that has been fleshed out.

Now, where does the rest of that well-know Parker quote come from? It comes from the book Spiritualism, chapter four of which is titled “Of the Party That Are Neither Catholics Nor Protestants.” This chapter begins by saying, “This party has an Idea wider and deeper than that of the Catholic or Protestant, namely, that God still inspires men as much as ever; that he is immanent in spirit as in space. For the present purpose, and to avoid circumlocution, this doctrine may be called SPIRITUALISM.” It’s important to note that by “spiritualism,” Parker did not mean the spiritualism that involves seances, communicating with the dead, or the Spiritualist Church of America. I supposed he meant Transcendentalism, but a Spirit-filled version thereof; I suspect he means something like a religion that is moved by the Spirit directly intuited.

In any case, Parker then goes on to tell us how his version of “spiritualism” may be defined. He says things like: “It relies on the divine presence in the Nature of Man”; and “It calls God Father and Mother, not King; Jesus, not brother; Heaven home; Religion nature.”

Parker then locates his version of “spiritualism” within what we today might call a post-Christian religion. He says, “The ‘Christianity’ it rests in is not the point Man goes through in his progress, as the Rationalist, not the point God goes through in his development, as the Supernaturalist maintains; but Absolute Religions, the point where Man’s will and God’s will are one and the same.” Now cone a series of further definitions, such as: “Its Source is absolute, its Aim absolute, its Method absolute. It lays down no creed; asks no symbol; reverences exclusively no time or place, and therefore can use all time and every place.” After a few of these defining sentences, we finally reach:

“Its Temple is all space; its Shrine the good heart; its Creed all truth; its Ritual works of love and utility; its Profession of faith a manly life, works without, faith within, love of God and man.”

Somehow phrases from this longer chapter got picked up and passed around, and mushed together. So in 1888, we get:

“One man may commune with God through the bread and wine, emblems of the body that was broken and the blood that was shed, in the cause of truth, another may commune through the moss and the violet, the mountain, ocean, or the scripture of the suns which God has writ in the sky. Its temple is all space; its shrine the good heart; its creed all truth; its Ritual works of love and utility, its Profession of Faith, a divine life.” (Everyday Helps: A Calendar of Rich Thought, compiled and arranged by L. J. and Nellie V. Anderson [Chicago: New Era Publishing Co, 1890], entry for May 24)

And gradually, over time, as different editors picked this up and altered it — and stuck on the bit about “be ours a religion” — we wind up with the familiar quotation. But that familiar quotation is really two quotations combined. Both of those quotations are taken out of context. The wording of both quotations has been substantially altered.

In short, I would no longer call this a Theodore Parker quotation. It’s Theodore Parker filtered through New Thought, and with much of the Transcendentalism removed. Or to put it in terms of a food metaphor, it’s Theodore Parker with much of the nourishment removed, and extra sugar added to make it more palatable; empty calories, in other words.

Final verdict: if you’re going to use this quote (and honestly, after finding all this out I’m hesitant to use it ever again), the best attribution would probably be “arranged from Theodore Parker.” Or maybe “based on Theodore Parker.”

How to fight therapeutic technological consumerist militarism

The current issue of Geez magazine (“Contemplative Cultural Resistance”) just arrived in my mailbox from Canada, and the issue opens with a quote from Walter Brueggeman’s 2005 essay “Counterscript.” Geez had to abridge the quote, but here’s the original:


“The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

“I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

“I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.

“I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that ‘if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: ‘It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.’

“The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

“It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”


Later in the essay, Brueggeman goes on to say that this script has “failed,” for “we are not safe, and we are not happy.” He points to the complicity of the Christian church in “enacting” this script, adding:

“It is the task of the church and its ministry to detach us from that powerful script.”

Unitarian Universalism got kicked out of the Christian church more than a century ago (a fact we’re now kind of proud of), but like many Christian churches we too are enacting the script of therapeutic technological consumerist militarism. We firmly believe that we can find ways to live our lives with no inconvenience. We firmly believe that we can find a fix for every problem.

The next two points may not be as obvious, and will require some explanation.

We may protest that we fight consumerism, but we live our lives as though resources are ours to exploit. We cut down on our oil use, but we firmly believe that the sun and wind are ours to exploit for energy. We say we are anti-racist, but the financial health of many of our congregations can be traced back to seed money accumulated through exploitation of people of color: land appropriated from Native American peoples, labor appropriated from persons of African descent, etc.

We may protest militarism. Many of us may be peaceniks, and some of us have been arrested protesting militarism. But in the end we depend on systems that protect therapeutic technological consumerism, and so we protest that upon which our livelihoods depend.

Brueggeman goes on to say: Continue reading “How to fight therapeutic technological consumerist militarism”

Mystics and Transcendentalists

Below is the uncorrected text of the talk with which I began a class on the mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism, focusing (of course) on the Transcendentalists. A fascinating discussion followed, in which participants offered corrections where I was vague or in error, amplified things that needed to be amplified, and added lots of good thinking. So if you read this, remember that you’re missing the most interesting part of the class. Also, I diverged from the text at several places, so the talk you heard may not be the talk you read here.

Yes, liberal religion has a mystical tradition!

It seems odd that I have to assert this so vigorously. But our Unitarian and Universalist traditions, and Unitarian Universalism today, have not been particularly hospitable towards mystics. Throughout our history, and into the present day, the rationalists dominate our theological conversations — and I include both the theistic rationalists and the atheist rationalists. Our faith tradition clings to its belief in a rationalism inherited from the Enlightenment; we believe in carefully reasoned arguments; we have a tendency to focus on the brain and mind and ignore the heart and the rest of the body; we are most likely to use logical thought, and we are inclined to ignore other ways of knowing and interpreting the world.

However, by the same token, the mystics among us been not been kind towards their non-mystical co-religionists.

Emerson against religious formalism

Back in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave what is now known as the Divinity School Address; he spoke to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, supplier of most Unitarian ministers of the day, and told them how to be good ministers. Do not be coldly rational formalists, he warned. And then, speaking of the minister of his Unitarian church in Concord, Massachusetts, a man by the name of Barzillai Frost, Emerson said:

photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.”

Emerson was prone to really bad puns, and here he indulges himself in a hidden pun: It is Barzillai FROST who is speaking in a SNOW STORM; bad as this pun may be, it points up a difference between two kinds of coldness: there is the coldness of the snow, which is real and can be experienced; and there is the coldness of religious formalism. Continue reading “Mystics and Transcendentalists”

More on Thoreau

Lecturette from the second and final session of a adult RE class on Thoreau — typos and all.

At the end of last week’s session, you asked me to address a number of points about Henry David Thoreau. In no particular order, you asked me to talk about the following:

(1) Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience
(2) How Thoreau was affected by Eastern religions
(3) The circle of writers and thinkers who came and went in the town of Concord during Thoreau’s life
(4) Why Thoreau left his Unitarian church, and place his departure in the context of wider trends in Unitarianism
(5) Thoreau’s later influence on Unitarianism, and then on Unitarian Universalism Continue reading “More on Thoreau”